Touring in support of her fifth LP The Calcination of Scout Niblett, British born Emma Louise “Scout” Niblett plays a toned down grunge that has her frequently likened to PJ Harvey or a messy Chan Marshall. Reverting back to her traditional style characteristic of earlier albums such as I Am, she was a sparse clatter of emotion at The Borderline, London.
Like an exuberant child she came on stage in an understated baggy t-shirt and skirt greeting us by telling us to “think of questions to ask later” which had people from the packed audience enquiring “what’s your star sign?” (she’s rather obsessed with astrology), “where do you get your rings from?” (she was wearing at least six).
From the instant she launched into “Just Do It!“, the opening track from the new LP, it was as if we’d jumped a couple of decades back in time. Her musical style; while sounding like it’s been dredged up from the minimal grunge epoch always manages to feel fresh when she plays it despite there being little variation between the records she’s been releasing since 2001. It is evident in her sound that she is influenced by bands like Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Nirvana and more recently John Lee Hooker, to whom she listened while writing and recording The Calcination of Scout Niblett, yet her emulation of these styles and musicians never feels contrived or outdated.
Covering tracks from her three most recent albums the set was devoid of any kind of disjointedness, everything melding into one long shoegaze meets grunge playlist. Tracks from This Fool Can Die Now marked a transition period in which her often abrasive and harsh vocals were lightened by her romanticised lyrics bathed in string arrangements – on stage however she strips them to just vocal and guitar. This removal of the features adorning their pre-recorded selves allowed for a different take on the lyrics which, without the vocal input of Will Oldham, gave a reversed perspective, allowing the words to be turned inwardly rather than projected towards another. Standout track “Black Hearted Queen“, whose opening chords are reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, was the most impassioned out of a performance which was bare and honest through and through.
Her vocals snarled the fitting lyrics they sure like to show off their incisors on “I.B.D“, while “Cherry Cheek Bomb” deftly meshed her new introspective lyrics with a chaotic jam, and darkly comic was “Your Beat Kick Beat Like Death” in which she jubilantly took to the drum kit pronouncing over and over “we’re all gonna die“. Performances also of “Kiss“, “Hot to Death“, “Nevada” and “Drummer Boy” made up a generous set.
While it is her unguarded emotional intensity that ultimately drives her performances; by uniting the jolting and sludgy dirge of her guitar with a drummer whose rawness and precision reins it in is just as crucial to her live sets. The crowd was so silent and complicit to these truths through the whole show, awestruck by a performer remarkably more tranquil and accessible in a live setting: it’s only really in this environment that we get such an intense sense of how deeply imbedded these songs are in her.
A completely entrancing performer, who despite flitting between cute and innocent banter with the audience and grinning like a child who just aced Guitar Hero, throwing her arms up triumphantly at the end of jams (which she did frequently throughout the set) she still manages to conjure up the emotion needed to drive her harrowing tracks of barren expression: Completely humble, heartfelt and honest.
All photos by Michael Farrant (all rights reserved)